The InterReligious Task Force (IRTF) is a Cleveland-based interfaith group whose mission is to promote peace and human rights in Central America and Colombia. The group was founded after four churchwomen were raped and murdered in El Salvador on 2 December 1980. The women, Sister Dorothy Kazel, Sister Ita Ford, Sister Maura Clarke, and Jean Donovan were targeted by the civilian-military junta as subversives because of their work with refugees in territory controlled by the Faribundo Marti Front for National Liberation (FMLN), the main opponent of the regime. The regime was headed by Jose Napoleon Duarte, who served as the civilian president, however, the military junta controlled the government. Civil war gripped El Salvador from 1980 to 1992. The regime remained in power with support from the United States government in the form of monetary aid and military training received at the School of the Americas in Panama (now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, located at Fort Benning, Georgia). Over the course of twelve years, thousands of people, mostly civilians, were killed by government forces determined to keep leftist guerrilla groups from gaining power.
- Sister Dorothy Kazel was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1939 and joined the Ursuline Sisters in 1960. She initially joined the El Salvador mission team in 1974. As the decade wore on and the oppression of the regime increased, Sister Dorothy, along with the rest of the mission team spent more and more time transporting homeless people, especially women and children to refugee centers. Sister Dorothy also brought food and supplies to those who needed them the most and witnessed the atrocities of Duarte’s regime first hand.
- Jean Donovan was also a native Clevelander. Although she was not a nun, Jean was deeply committed to the work the mission team was engaged in. Educated at Case Western Reserve University, Maryknoll Sister Mary Anne O’Donnell described Jean as “intelligent, loving and apostolic.” Upon her arrival in El Salvador in 1979, Jean was the youngest of the mission team. The people of the village La Libertad, called her “St. Jean the Playful.”
- Sister Ita Ford was born in New York in 1940 and first joined the Maryknoll Sisters in 1961. Although she was forced to leave after just three years due to health problems, she re-applied and was accepted in 1971. Sister Ita arrived in Chile in 1973 as part of the mission team working here. When Archbishop Oscar Romero called for aid to El Salvador, Sister Ita responded in early 1980.
- Sister Maura Clarke was also from New York. Born in 1931, she joined the Maryknoll Sisters in 1950. Prior to her time in El Salvador, Sister Maura spent eighteen years in Nicaragua where she helped administer aid in the wake of the 1972 earthquake that killed an estimated 10,000-20,000 people. While Sister Maura was not present for the fall of the Somoza regime, she returned in 1979 to celebrate and reconnect with old friends. It was during this stay that she, along with many other Maryknoll Sisters, including Sister Ita Ford, answered Archbishop Romero’s call for help in El Salvador. To the end she was committed to serving the people of Latin America.¹ In October 1980, Maura wrote her niece and spoke of El Salvador and the meaning of her work there:
“I am beginning to see death in a new way, dearest Katie. For all these precious men, women, children struggling in just laying down their lives as victims, it is surely a passageway to life or, better, a change in life…
At this point, I would hope to be able to go on, God willing… This seems what He is asking of me at this moment. The work is really what Archbishop Romero called “acompañamiento” [accompanying the people], as well as searching for ways to bring help.” Click for the full text of her letter.
Sister Dorothy and Jean Donovan picked up Sisters Ita and Maura at the San Salvadorn airport and the four of them were headed back to the village they worked in when their van was stopped by government forces. Their bodies were found twenty miles away from the van the following day. The women had been raped, murdered, and left in a ditch on the side of the road. Their deaths were part of a larger wave of killings carried out by government security forces and government sanctioned death squads. Ultimately, 8,000 civilians were killed in 1980, of whom 6,000 can be directly linked to the civilian-military junta. The violence displayed in El Salvador throughout 1980 is but one example of civilian murders at the hands of the government.
In 1932, 30,000 men, women, and children were killed by the military and security forces of Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez. These people were put to death despite the fact that the leadership who had orchestrated the uprising against Martinez, including Faribundo Marti had already been executed prior to “La Matanza,” or massacre. The notion of a class conscious public, capable of organizing and threatening the status quo of the wealthy landowners was a powerful motivator in snuffing out any would be resistors. The reign of dictators and military junta governments stretches into the early twentieth century as coffee producers gained power and solidified control of El Salvador.
The involvement of the Catholic Church in the lives of the poor and oppressed in Latin America via mission work and direct action stemmed from the realities of the twenty-first century. Church doctrine changed fundamentally, as can be seen in the outcome of Vatican II and the reinterpretation of the role of the church. The idea of liberation theology that emerged, especially in Latin America during this time did much to color how the religious community interacted with and responded to oppressive regimes. Among the main characteristics of this new way of thinking was the proactive stance that priests and nuns took. For groups like the United Popular Action Front (FAPU), formed by radical priests in El Salvador, providing aid to the rebels or oppressed people was not enough, instead, they actively promoted the resistance movements which attracted more attention from dictators and military regimes.² While the FAPU had the interest of the common folk in mind, their actions placed themselves in even greater danger. The work that these four women were engaged in was a direct result of that new way of thinking. The role of the church was to ease the suffering and, to some extent, resist or at least not prohibit the efforts of the masses in their fight against oppressive regimes. Thus, the priests, nuns, and church workers in El Salvador performed the work of God to help alleviate the struggles of the poor and downtrodden.
The aid that people like Sisters Dorothy, Ita, Maura, and Jean Donovan provided to the poor and oppressed people of El Salvador was seen as an affront to the leadership of the civilian-military junta. The rape and murder of Sister Dorothy Kazel, Sister Ita Ford, Sister Maura Clarke, and Jean Donovan, as Americans brought the foreign policy of the United States into sharp relief. The regime in El Salvador received federal funding to the tune of one million dollars a day. The security forces that gunned these women down had been trained at the School of the Americas. The United States government legitimized the reign of terror in El Salvador by believing that the true enemy in Latin America was the Soviet Union. The common thinking among policy makers in Washington was that a dictator could be more easily converted to democracy than a communist regime could be. Thus, so long as the men in power were supported by the United States and the myth that Soviet agents operated in the Latin American countryside was perpetuated, the people, oppressed and massacred by their governments, were denied the rights and assistance due them under such circumstances. These American women and the civilians they helped ended up caught in broader national and global conflicts related to the Cold War.
The murders of these four American women was the culmination of short-sighted, ill-informed US foreign policy. The continuing task of the InterReligious Task Force to promote peace and human rights throughout Central America and Colombia highlights the legacy of US involvement in the region and the misplaced altruism in the name of democracy through the support of authoritarian, oppressive regimes.
¹ InterReligious Task Force, “About the Martyrs,” accessed 31 May 2016, http://www.irtfcleveland.org/content/about-martyrs.
² Robert W. Taylor and Harry E. Vanden, “Defining Terrorism in El Salvador: “La Mantanza,”” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 463, International Terrorism (Sep., 1982): 106-118. Accessed 9 June 2016. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1043615.
Photo Credit: Alison Keller, Four Church Women, 7 December 2007. Used under Creative Commons license 2.0.
Froohar, Manzar. “Liberation Theology: The Response of Latin American Catholics to Socioeconomic Problems.” Latin American Perspectives 13.3, (Summer 1986): 37-58. Accessed 7 June 2016. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2633711.
InterReligious Task Force Cleveland. “About the Martyrs.” Accessed 31 May 2016. http://www.irtfcleveland.org/content/about-martyrs.
Taylor, Robert W. and Harry E. Vanden. “Defining Terrorism in El Salvador: “La Matanza.”” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 463, International Terrorism (Sep., 1982): 106-118. Accessed 9 June 2016. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1043615.